The following interview with Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, was produced and published by Iran Primer and republished here with permission.
What role did Raisi play in the 1988 executions of thousands of Iranian political prisoners? How important or central was the decision of the four-member commission to execute these prisoners?
The mass execution of some 5,000 captive political prisoners has been widely regarded as an extrajudicial massacre which has amounted to a crime against humanity. These prisoners had already been prosecuted and sentenced to prison terms. They were finishing their prison term; some had even served their sentence and were due to be released. However, as the end of the Iran-Iraq war approached, the Iranian government at the highest level decided that a purge of political prisoners was essential to its survival.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the then supreme leader, issued a brief order that any prisoner who still held to his political beliefs should be executed. He appointed four men, including Ebrahim Raisi, to what later became known as the “Death Committee” to organize and carry out his order. At the time, Raisi was a 28-year-old prosecutor. As a member of the Death Committee, Raisi is said to have been instrumental in planning and organizing the massacre within months. The executions have long been seen as an indication of his brutality and loyalty to the system.
What did Raisi do as a lawyer or prosecutor after that? What are the best known or most notable cases associated with it?
Raisi has been continuously promoted to the most important positions in the judiciary. Shortly after the 1988 mass executions, Raisi was promoted to Attorney General of Tehran, a post he held until 1994. He then spent a decade, from 1994 to 2004, as director of the National Inspection Organization, the most powerful under judicial oversight body. He was then appointed first deputy head of the judiciary from 2004 to 2014. His posts often overlapped. He was also Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for the Clergy from 2012 to 2021. From 2014 to 2016, he served as Attorney General of Iran while serving, from 2015 to 2018, as head of the Astan Quds Foundation, a economically powerful religious institution. . From February 2019 until his assumption of the presidency in mid-2021, he was head of the judiciary.
What position did he take on the prisoners seized during the demonstrations of the Green Movement in 2009?
In addition to his notorious role in the 1988 massacre, he is known as a key player in the repression of the Green Movement in 2009. As the first deputy justice, he championed a campaign that included arrest, torture and the execution of protesters. It is particularly associated with the fate of two political prisoners, Arash Rahmanipour and Mohammad Reza Alizamani, who have been accused of participating in the Green Movement protests that began after the disputed presidential election in June 2009. However, the Rahmanipour and Alizamani would have been arrested early on like March 2009, which called into question the way they could have participated in protests weeks or months later. The two men were executed in January 2010. A few days later, Raisi said: “Two people who were executed and nine others who will soon be executed were arrested for good during the recent riots. The two men were “affiliated with one of the counterrevolutionary currents and were involved in riots with motives of hypocrisy and overthrow of the regime,” he said.
What was his record as head of Iranian justice between 2019 and 2021?
During his tenure as head of the judiciary, he led a campaign of repression that made the justice system a direct instrument of security and intelligence agencies. His last act as head of the judiciary was a long directive under the title of “Regulations for the implementation of the law on the independence of the bar”. The directive deprived the Iranian Bar Association of its independence in all of its governance matters. It is considered an illegal directive, since only Parliament can change the laws governing the governance of the Bar Association. The legal community in Iran was outraged. Other acts accomplished during his short tenure as head of the judiciary included:
Iran had one of the highest per capita death penalty rates in the world in 2020. The death penalty was handed down against:
- Protesters and dissidents, like Ruhollah Zam, a dissident journalist who was kidnapped in Iraq, brought back to Iran and tried in 2020
- Non-Persian ethnic minorities, including Arab, Baloch and Kurdish political prisoners
- Young delinquents
- Man charged with alcohol consumption in 2020, first execution for the offense in two decades
Mistreatment of political prisoners
People continued to be tried for peaceful activism. Political prisoners, especially women, have been subjected to harsher treatment, including:
Lack of responsibility
Senior security officials have not been prosecuted for major incidents, including:
- The killing of at least 300 peaceful protesters and bystanders during street protests in November 2019 with little or no repercussions.
- The downing of a Ukrainian airliner, killing 176 people, in January 2020, even after the Revolutionary Guards accepted responsibility.
Imprisonment of human rights lawyers
Human rights-focused defense lawyers continued to be jailed and prevented from doing their jobs. The main issues included:
What has Raisi done on the issue of corruption, a major political issue in Iran?
During his presidential run in 2021, Raisi’s campaign focused on his anti-corruption record, including the trial of Akbar Tabari, the first deputy of former justice chief Sadeq Larijani. Tabari was tried in 2020 for corruption and money laundering. Raisi’s team led the prosecution and sentenced Tabari, who was sentenced to 31 years in prison. The trial had overlapping political implications. This weakened Sadeq Larijani as a potential candidate for the next Supreme Leader. Sadeq’s brother Ali Larijani, an influential former speaker of parliament, was also subsequently disqualified from running for president against Raisi. Three members of the Larijani family have held important government positions since the 1980s. The high-profile Tabari affair has undermined the future of two political rivals of the Larijani family who could have blocked Raisi’s path to being either president , be the next supreme leader.
What is his record on the use of Islamic law in relation to the civil code? Is it more associated with one than the other?
In his many judicial posts over the decades, Raisi has been primarily associated with the Revolutionary Courts and the Special Court for the Clergy, both of which implement the Islamic Penal Code. He has no history in civil lawsuits.
Where did Raisi get his legal education? And what kind of law? Did he study law in a seminary or in a law school? How has his judicial or legal career evolved?
According to Raisi, he studied for a few years in a seminary in Mashhad, his hometown, after completing the sixth grade. At the age of 15, he enrolled in a religious seminary in Qom. He was 18 at the time of the 1979 revolution. At the age of 21, with limited qualifications, he was appointed prosecutor, simultaneously, in Karaj and Hamedan, the two capitals of two large provinces. Raisi’s official curriculum vitae states that he obtained a master’s degree in civil law in 2001. It also claims that he entered a doctoral program in civil law at Motahari University in 2001 and obtained his doctorate in 2013 .
Photo credits: Raisi via Tasnim News Agency (CC BY 4.0); Raisi and Larijani By Mehr News Agency, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons